This is my sermon for 10 September 2017, on Matthew 18:15-20.
Your Own Sins
The Ten Commandments, traditionally used at the beginning of the Anglican liturgy, remind us in methodical detail that we are sinners. The Summary of the Law – to love God and love neighbor – is enough to convict us that we are sinners, failing to love God and neighbor with our whole hearts, and so forth; but the Ten Commandments really help spell it out for us. We are reminded that we “shall not murder”, and if your memory of Christ’s teachings is sharp, you’ll realize that even hatred toward another person counts as murder. We are reminded that we must “honor [our] father and mother”, realizing the biblical teaching that the authority figures of father and mother extend beyond the nuclear family to include both civil and religious authorities as well. With each commandment we respond in prayer “Lord, have mercy” because we have broken it, and “give us grace to keep this law” because we seek to follow Christ in the most excellent way. Concerning all of them, we ask the Holy Spirit to “write them upon our hearts”, for it is our very hearts that turn against God, not just our external sinful actions and failures.
This is a picture of contrition – the “contrite heart” we hear about in Psalm 51 and other places in the Bible – a heart that recognizes its sinfulness and desires God’s help in both correction and restoration.
But contrition is just the first step of four.
Once we learn to be truly sorry for our sins, we then take them to the Lord God in prayer. “We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, and in what we have left undone.” This confession we make in many ways: in our own private prayer times at one end, in the common liturgy of the Church at the other end, and in private confession with a priest (as a combination of the first two methods). Each of these methods of making our confession of sin is good and valid and useful, though they have different impacts on our spiritual lives and highlight different aspects of the Gospel. I’ll get back to those in a minute.
The third step of dealing with sin, after contrition and confession, is satisfaction. Every sin is an injury of our relationship with God and rejection of His Word, so what is needed next is the satisfaction of God’s justice. This Christ has done on the Cross on behalf of every sin committed by every sinner. There is no viable alternative, there is no other sacrifice that can be added to it. Thus when you make your confession to God with a contrite heart, you must also place your faith in Christ on the Cross. See your sin removed from you and nailed to His cross. Our sins are “more than we can bear,” but Jesus bore them all for us on the Cross. A true confession must go on to give up the sins committed; if we cling to them they will continue to drag us down.
Finally, there is the fourth step: penance. This is where we step out of the prayer closet, or leave the confessional booth, or exchange the Peace in the Communion liturgy: we finish the prayer and get up and heed the preaching of Saint John the Baptist: “Bear fruit that befits repentance” (Matthew 3:8). This is when we go and reconcile with our neighbors, when we return what we have stolen, when we fix what we have broken, when we apologize to those we’ve hurt. Sometimes this stage of penance seems incomplete – some sins make wounds that can never heal in this life; sometimes reconciliation takes a very long time. So we must remember that penance is only part of the overall picture of dealing with sin; divine justice is satisfied by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, not by our acts of penance.
Now, the scriptures teach us that all Christians share in the royal priesthood of Christ. This means that you can work through all four steps – contrition, confession, satisfaction, and penance – all on your own. But, as I’m sure you all know, it can be pretty easily to distract ourselves away from this process. As sheep in God’s flock, we are constantly hounded by wolves, servants of the Devil, who would dearly love to see us remain in our sins such that we might fall away, or at least stifle the light of Christ. We might be inclined to downplay the importance of our sins, and thus fail to make contrition. We might get lazy about prayer saying “God knows my sins anyway”, and thus fail to make confession. We might wallow in our sinfulness and thus fail to accept Christ’s satisfaction. We might wimp out at the end and fail to pursue any form of penance. So taking this process into the liturgy of the Church is an extremely wise thing to do.
In the standard Communion liturgy we are assisted in working through each of these steps. As I already described, we are given provocation to contrition in the reading of the Ten Commandments and have opportunity to express contrition in the congregational response to them. We are given opportunity to make our confession in the actual Prayer of Confession, if only we read it with our hearts and minds, and not just our lips. We are presented with the satisfaction of Christ in the Absolution and the Words of Comfort, as well as in the Communion Prayers, where the very word “satisfaction” is expressly used. Even the promise to make amends, or penance, is mentioned in the Confession Prayer, and an echo of that shows up in the Post-Communion Prayer as we ask God’s help in sending us out to do the work He has given us to do. If we invest ourselves in the liturgy of the Church, we find a training ground for repentance.
Private Confession is also an option for us. This brief sacramental rite assumes that you have reached contrition on your own already, and seek the aid of the Church through the rest of the process. The prayer of confession there is much more open-ended, allowing you to express your sorrow, admit your wrongdoings, and get it all out in the open. The Absolution, like in the Communion service, declares Christ’s satisfaction, and the priest’s giving of penance helps you pursue healing and reconciliation in an appropriate way.
The Sins of Others
So now another big question: what do we do about people who we know have sinned, but aren’t doing anything about it? This is where today’s Gospel lesson comes into the picture. In American culture, we tend to highlight the autonomy of self very strongly. Self-reliance is an American virtue, not a biblical one, and it can be very difficult for us to come to grips with the biblical call actually to be our brother’s keeper.
Yes, amidst all the modern talk of “judge not”, there actually is a biblical mandate to help one another. Here in Matthew 18, Jesus says “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” Similarly, in 2 Timothy 2:24-26, Saint Paul wrote, “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to every one, an apt teacher, forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil”. No man is an island; we exist in communities, and we need to look out for one another.
In the Old Testament lesson we heard Ezekiel called to be a watchman (33:1-11); and this, too, is a model for all sorts of ministers, not just Old Testament Prophets. Ministers are given the task of warning people of danger – the Gospel must be proclaimed and sins must be identified so they can be overcome. If the minister fails to help people see their sins so they can amend, then the minister will be judged as if he shared in the other person’s guilt. There is no direct warning there which applies to every Christian indiscriminately, but the general lesson that we must not hide the full Gospel message – both that sin exists and must be overcome, and that grace exists and must be accepted through Jesus Christ – is a lesson that every Christian ought to take to heart.
So now, if we look closely Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18, we find an excellent outline for exercising church discipline. It is essentially a three-step process.
Step one is, very simply, that first verse (18:15) which I just quoted: if someone’s sin affects you and he or she isn’t yet repenting or seeking amendment of life, go to that person and let them know that they have sinned. Obviously we want to do this with tact and in a spirit of love rather than of anger; the whole point of this is to gain our brother back, so to speak.
Step two, if that doesn’t work, is to bring witnesses along with you, so that both you and the sinner know that it isn’t just you being whiney and easily offended. This multiple-witness approach is also in line with Old Testament law: no serious crime could be prosecuted without at least two witnesses. This is also an appropriate step for addressing someone who has sinned in an especially public way, or who holds an especially public office. As Saint Paul wrote to Timothy, “Never admit any charge against an elder [that is, a presbyter or priest] except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19). In each case, the idea is that having multiple witnesses makes the accusation all the more serious and substantial, so that the guilty party can see the error of his ways and repent. Repentance and reconciliation are always the goal here.
Step three, if even that doesn’t work, is to bring the case before the church. Different Christian traditions today will realize this in different ways, but historically the seat of authority within the local church is the overseer, or bishop. In that one office we find the representative leadership of the whole diocese, though we do have a tradition of having an ecclesiastical court of both clergymen and laymen to hold a trial should the need arise. And yet again, the goal is that those who are guilty of sins will recognize their sins and repent. So it is the sinner’s refusal to repent that leads to his or her treatment as an outsider, a non-christian, a condition traditionally called excommunication.
When verse 18 talks about binding and loosing in heaven and on earth, this is a reference to a charge Jesus gave to Peter two chapters earlier, and which Jesus would say to all the apostles in John chapter 20, after his resurrection. This has to do with the forgiveness and retention of sins, and the disciplinary process we’ve just seen here in Matthew 18 is very helpful in showing us that the power of binding or retaining is not carried out blithely or arbitrarily. For the most part, in order to be excommunicated, the guilty party essentially convicts himself by refusing to listen to his fellow Christians, no matter how small or great they may be.
The final verse here, about “where two or three are gathered” is a verse that you often hear used in different contexts. It’s often used to describe a worship service: where two or three are gathered, there is Jesus in their midst. Sometimes it’s abused to argue against the presence of Christ in His Sacraments or in His Word: if Jesus is present in the simple gathering of Christians, why bother discerning His presence anywhere else? Such an abuse fails to take the disciplinary context of this verse into account: Christ is present in this “two or three” in judgment, whereas the Sacraments are about Christ’s presence in grace. Yet another abuse of this verse is to say “where two or three are gathered, there is the church.” Again, this fails to realize the context properly: the “two or three” refer to the authority of the Church, not the essence of the Church.
All in all, this is a very practical passage of Christ’s teachings. Sometimes people try to make it more profound or more far-reaching than it’s meant to be. But really, it’s just a simple straightforward intelligent disciplinary process. When we’re effected by the sins of others and we see them continuing in their sin, we have a responsibility to help them. If they don’t listen to you, then get help, and so on.
I can’t stress this enough – our goal isn’t revenge, or getting even, or even justice. Our goal is to gain back a brother or a sister. We want to see all people living the new life in Christ healthily, dealing with their sins in all contrition, confession, satisfaction, and penance. We must pursue this ourselves, first and foremost, lest we become critical of others’ specks of dust in their eyes to the neglect of our logs of guilt, but that does not excuse our silence and standing by if we see or brethren being devoured by the devil!
I’ll close with a paraphrase of the end of the 51st Psalm (15-19).
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Do good to Christ’s Bride in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of the Church;
then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.